A heartless disease, and a heartless response

Times Staff Writer

Gao Jun is an orphan of the most desperate kind: Both his parents are dead from AIDS, and now the toddler is also HIV-positive. Residents in his remote village in southeast China -- including some of his extended family -- won’t go near him, mistakenly fearing they could catch the deadly virus.

As an outcast, his body reddened with rash, he kicks barnyard pigs as a way to vent the anger of his banishment. Dressed in oversized jacket and knitted hat pulled low, he plays alone in an animal pen, a plastic radio held to his ear.

Gao is a central character in “The Blood of Yingzhou District,” a new documentary by filmmakers Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon about an epidemic that has so far orphaned 75,000 children throughout China. Just 38 minutes long, the film is one of six chosen from among 258 entries to screen Wednesday at the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival in Washington, D.C., in a new and unusual category: global health.

“It’s a very quietly stunning film,” said Nina Gilden Seavey, director of Silverdocs’ “Docs Rx” offerings. “You look for movies that tell a deep story that is unexpected. This one does.”


Most Chinese AIDS victims are from rural areas where the disease has spread among villagers who donated blood in the 1980s and 1990s to make a few extra yuan ($6 for two pints of blood). Most infections came after tainted blood was injected into donors so they could more quickly give more blood. Chinese officials denied the AIDS rates until pressure from global health officials. In some areas, the AIDS infection rate is 20% or more.

The filmmakers tell their tale from the mouths of children turned pariahs in four villages in AIDS-stricken Anhui province. There’s Nan Nan, a 14-year-old with AIDS whose emotional bedrock, 16-year-old sister Little Flower, gets married -- leaving Nan Nan’s future in doubt.

And there’s the Huang siblings, who tearfully discuss life in a village that, misinformed about the potential spread of AIDS, no longer seems to have a heart.

“Over there in that house, there’s a boy who looks down on us,” the oldest girl sobs after the death of her father and mother. “Right in front of our face he said bad things about our parents, and spread rumors that we were infected too, so the villagers won’t come near us.”


To reach the children, the filmmakers had to break through China’s bureaucratic brick walls and cultural barriers -- probing sensitive subjects in a society that puts a stigma on publicly discussing its pain.

The documentary is an East-West collaboration -- pairing the Hong Kong-born Yang, who directed, and the New York-based Lennon, who produced.

Yang and Lennon are founders of the China AIDS Media Project, an ambitious new effort to bring disease prevention to a country that only in recent years has acknowledged its AIDS epidemic. In 2004, they wrote and edited the first major AIDS prevention campaign to air on Chinese state-run television.

The ads featured NBA player Yao Ming, who puts his arm around and shares food with the HIV-positive Magic Johnson to show that the disease is not contracted via casual contact.

“What’s unremarkable in the U.S. in China is a very potent message to send, especially on state television,” said Yang.

Yang directed another film for Chinese TV about a university student who went public after contracting AIDS through sexual contact -- breaking taboos about open discussion of premarital sex.

But probing socially backward rural villages was an entirely different matter. “People bore an incredible sadness over the disease that was everywhere,” Yang said of Anhui province. “The village knows Nan Nan is sick, but nobody talks about it. And Gao Jun was neglected, ignored. He lived like an animal.”

Yang and Lennon met in New York while working on “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience,” a PBS series narrated by Bill Moyers. In the fall of 2002, the pair decided to tell a more difficult story.


But they differed on how to approach such a sensitive subject as Chinese AIDS orphans. While Yang wanted to focus on an international audience outside the Middle Kingdom, Lennon wanted to shoot for an even harder-to-reach group -- shooting for a project he envisioned would be shown throughout China. “Had I been more sophisticated about China,” Lennon said, “I never would have suggested such a thing.”

They sought advice from AIDS scholars in China. But even the comparatively simple task of raising money for an intended series of films on AIDS almost killed the venture.

For U.S. companies with interests in China, the topic was “too hot to handle,” Lennon recalled: “China is seen as a U.S. competitor. It was a tough sell.”

The breakthrough came in 2003 during the scare over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), when Chinese officials realized they had to become more open on internal issues that could affect global health.

Access to money and information improved. But more than a year after they began, they weren’t even sure where to go to tell their tale.

“We really began to wonder whether we were wasting our time,” Lennon said. “We always knew that making such a sensitive film in China was a naive, quixotic idea, but it started to seem stupid as well.”

While making the AIDS prevention spots for Chinese TV, Yang came across Zhang Ying, a businesswoman turned humanitarian who began helping AIDS orphans in the Yingzhou District of Anhui province.

Suddenly they had a vehicle to tell their story.


“We were outsiders,” Yang said. “But Zhang worked with local officials. All the villagers knew her. So we never got stopped when she was around.”

They hired a Chinese film crew, but Lennon stayed away: “The last thing we needed was a visible foreigner on location.”

With Zhang, the filmmakers could speak with officials about the scope of the AIDS virus. Beijing eventually lent the orphan project what Lennon described as “tacit non-disapproval.”

What Yang saw broke her heart. Especially when she entered the home where the three Huang children lived alone.

“There was this smell of death, even though the father had died months before,” she said. “There was so much poverty -- the floors were dirt. Hearing those children weep was intense. That has stayed with me.”

Nan Nan’s future is thrown into jeopardy when Little Flower decides to marry. The bride does not tell her in-laws about Nan Nan’s health for fear the family would disown her and her sister.

On her wedding day, Little Flower seems cloaked in sadness by the weight of her decision.

Nearby, Gao Jun’s two uncles grapple over the orphan’s future. The older uncle knows that if he allows his children to play with Gao Jun, they will also be ostracized by neighbors terrified by infection. The younger uncle’s choice is no easier: His association with the boy will make it harder to find a wife.

At one point, Gao Jun is adopted by a couple who are HIV-positive. Months later, the filmmakers show him speaking for the first time. “I’ll hit you!” he tells another child. And later, he looks into the camera and says, “I’ll smack you dead.”

Gao Jun later becomes so sick that the family gives him up. He is last seen walking down a dirt road.

But the film also shows the children’s fierce determination to survive. In one scene, the Huang children resolve to become educated as a way to one day better their tormentors. “I hate being looked down upon,” the boy says. “One day I will surpass them all.”

Days before their project premieres before an international audience in Washington, the filmmakers say they hope the documentary gets its airing in China as well. Gao Jun has already appeared in a series of AIDS prevention public service announcements on state-run TV that Yang directed. Still, the boy’s future remains uncertain.

Officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington know of the film and could show up for the premiere. Yang and Lennon hope their orphan project is just the first in a long series of documentaries about AIDS in China.

Said Lennon: “We’re already talking to the Chinese government about another project.”